Alan Gilbert and the Art of Conducting

December 23, 2017, 2:13 PM · New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert talked to Alec Baldwin on his podcast 'Here’s the Thing," and it brought together a down-to-earth conductor and a great actor with intelligent curiosity. Baldwin is always searching for the personal and sometimes quirky motivations of the artists, actors and politicians he interviews.

Alan Gilbert
Conductor Alan Gilbert.

Had Toscanini or Beecham been the interviewees, what might have ensued would have sounded much different. Stentorian voices and God-like dictums would have made Baldwin sit back and just listen. Instead, the conversation between one of the funniest, brightest actors and a Ron Howard–like conductor promised some fresh insight into the quirkiest of relationships: conductors, beats and the four distinct sections of the orchestra.

Mayberry and Sheriff Andy Taylor shared their wisdom every week we tuned in to listen. On The Andy Griffith Show, little Opie was played by Ron Howard, who went on to become one of America’s great film directors. Maestro Gilbert carries a certain bearing reminiscent of Howard. Without heavy-handed ego, the son of two violinists in the New York Phil spoke to Baldwin about how every orchestra has its own way of following the beat. There were no accusations of right and wrong. He simply stated what he had observed. Imagine how Toscanini would have phrased it! Even Baldwin might have blushed.

The Tricks Rhythm Plays on Us

Gilbert substituted in the Philadelphia Orchestra as a violinist when he was a student at Curtis Institute. Even with all of the advice his orchestral-musician parents imparted to him, Gilbert, on his first day of playing with the orchestra, fell into the trap of coming in early after the opening downbeat. Although it was simply a rookie mistake made by an extremely talented musician, the perception-changing experience sharpened his view and re-wired his brain.

In that moment, a quick mind does a quick assessment. One of Gilbert’s realizations might have been that, to truly listen to the group you’re playing with, you have to wait a moment to hear and think about what you’re hearing. The hair-trigger response that we are each capable of can get us into trouble, especially if you’re a super-aggressive player.

Blending With the Ensemble - Traps to Avoid

We are taught from an early age to not wait for our stand partner to play, or we’ll be late. However, rhythmic pulses offer us lots of time to both come in precisely on the beat and frame up the intentions of the music and the conductor. The most dangerous attitude is that an individual decides that his colleagues are late, and it’s up to him to bring everyone in. Guess who’s going to be early?

Be careful not to move in such a way that you’re out-leading the conductor. It’s not your job to show every beat and every musical intention. While it’s impressive, it’s a misplaced effort, and incredibly distracting. All that work should go towards a more worthwhile goal, like producing a beautiful, blending sound.

Practicing Flexibility, One Phrase at a Time

To improve your ability to assess what you’re hearing in an orchestra, and to "read the room," practice a phrase three times, changing the context each time. Vary the dynamics, tempo and sound, then make all the new parameters fit.

Orchestra and chamber music playing help us develop patience to respect the limits of the phrase and radar to notice the subtle changes. The alternative of finding and expressing your personal interpretation is so tempting, but it must be avoided assiduously. If you’re dying to play your favorite slide or fancy fingering, or play on a lower string with extra thick vibrato, look around you and just listen. Your personal idiosyncrasies suddenly become superfluous. Instead, try the "simple," pure way: fit within the framework, color inside the lines. There’s really nothing simple about it.

When the Orchestra Makes the Conductor Think

There’s the other side of the coin, in which Gilbert described the feeling of giving the upbeat to some orchestras and waiting a long time before they came in. Reading and assessing an orchestra correctly gets more complicated as the quality of the orchestra rises.

The richer the sound of the strings, the more likely it is that the rhythm will be expressive. Things simply take longer when the players feel the harmonic changes and are open to unhurried, flowing transitions. Conductors learn to sense the breathing and arc of the phrase, and hopefully possess the talent and the skill to mirror what is happening in the orchestra.

When you see a conductor guide and follow at the same time, and speak to the musicians about it with patience and respect, it is a rare display of genius. Giulini, Rattle, Elder, Barbirolli, Beecham, Abbado, Solti, Carlos Kleiber, and Mehta are just some of the few conductors that possess(ed) this ability, and they stand apart from those who exchange the light touch for the heavy hand.

Avoid Negativity – It Produces Nothing

Those conductors who resort to making the orchestra doubt itself may do it intentionally, but more likely they cannot figure out the healthier alternative. When a conductor talks down to an orchestra, or takes out his own frustrations on them, he misses a golden opportunity to rise above petty concerns.

When a conductor shows clearly the shape of the phrase, along with its character and dynamic, musicians naturally respond with a sonic image close to the conductor’s intent. Some conductors are inspired by the orchestra’s response, and that in turn leads to the music becoming more and more vivid. The way music and sound can build into a complex, emotional expression is much like a chain reaction. The right words and the right facial expressions bring the musicians to a more heightened and nuanced level of interpretation.

Less is Way More

As musicians living in the age of YouTube, we have an opportunity to study the art of conducting on a regular basis. We notice how conductors reduce the complexity of what we do as string players and present it as a mime simulates movement and feeling. As string players, we constantly shift our attention back and forth from technique to music. A miraculous thing happens when our concentration centers on the music, the dynamics and the contours of the phrase. All the technical parts fall in place without over-thinking, because our minds are guided by the "executive thinking" from the top.

The finest conductors have an uncanny ability to think in the pyramid style, in which they start with what’s most profound and filter down to the most prosaic of details. By observing them, we learn that you can always perform on the beat, and play in the present, even as the music is moving forward both metronomically and emotionally.

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December 27, 2017 at 10:33 PM · Wonderful article! I've never heard a conductor speak about the distance between the beat and the sound that you often notice with the great orchestras. Very interesting! And how refreshing for such an accomplished orchestral musician to write so graciously about conductors. We can all learn a great deal from this post!

December 28, 2017 at 01:43 PM · Thank you! The corollary to conductors having to figure out the personalities and "rhythm dynamics" of an orchestra is the orchestra needing to figure out the conductor. One famous opera conductor said that he doesn't expect the orchestra to read everything in his beat and manner. He knows that many ideas need a verbal description. I find that kind of thinking very refreshing, since some conductors expect musicians to read their mind.

December 29, 2017 at 04:31 AM · The above comment is from Paul!

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